THE MERITOCRACY TRAP: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles Middle Class and Devours the Elite
Meritocracy, the idea that jobs and rewards should be distributed according to ability and effort, is becoming the hegemonic social form in the modern world. Contrary to general perception, even affirmative action is not, as a principle, a deviation from the logic of meritocracy. Ideally, it is a means of devising a way of identifying talent from a larger social pool. Michael Young coined the term in his brilliantly dystopian portrayal in The Rise of Meritocracy (1958). Despite Young’s warnings, meritocracy was seen as an emancipatory idea, the very embodiment of equality of opportunity. Careers would be open to talent, not the lottery of birth; the most productive citizens would be rewarded, not aristocratic slackers; what one does would become more important than who one is. Some conception of ability, intelligence plus effort became the new currency of recognition.
But, instead of being an ideology of emancipation, equality, and self-discovery meritocracy reflects a new form of oppression, inequality and alienation. So argues Daniel Markovits, in this brilliant, intelligent and insightful book. Markovits writes with the zeal of a prosecution lawyer, the clarity of a philosopher, and with the astonishing data of a wide-ranging economic sociologist.
According to Markovits, eight out of 10 of the richest Americans today owe their wealth to their talent, not to inheritance or returns on inherited capital. So what is the case for the prosecution? It is exactly this success that marks meritocracy’s failures. On Markovits’ telling meritocracy is a self-undermining project. Rewards may be distributed according to talent. But the production of talent itself is a function of resources. Those who succeed in the meritocratic game can ensure that they transmit their meritocratic advantages to their children, by deploying vast resources.
The book is a stunning catalogue of the ways in which those who have succeeded through meritocracy can ensure that what they can transmit to their children is a great advantage in human capital. In short, it has now taken on the form of an inheritance. The seeming openness of the system is undermined by this fact. In the old system, you had to have wealth to produce more wealth; in the new system, your parents have to have succeeded at the human capital game to produce your human capital to be competitive. Markovits is graphic in detailing just how vicious this circle has become. Kids of meritocratically successful parents have an advantage in terms of building skills and accomplishments that will allow them to succeed. But the advantage is not just in terms of economic resources.
It turns out that in the United States, marriage is now governed by what is called assortive mating: high human capital individuals marry other high human capital individuals. But, and more surprisingly, marriage at the top-of-income end of the income distribution, is a more stable institution, giving those children a double advantage. The net result is that meritocracy is no longer the means to social mobility: it is acquiring caste-like characteristics, where those who succeed in the meritocratic game are able to transmit their privileges and inhabit different social worlds.
But the more remarkable parts of the book are on the sociology of modern work life, that arises from meritocracy. The current meritocratic model derives its power from the fact that for the first time in human history, elites have to work at least as hard, if not harder, than everyone else. There has been a stunning growth in the work hours of all elites across almost all professions. Lawyers used to apparently act more like leisurely gentleman in the middle of the 20th century, now work 2,500-3,000 billable hours a year. Markovits argues that we are in a great reversal where being busy is a sign of meritocratic success; and leisure has now become associated with both failure and being relatively poor. But for Markovits, this trend, that now constructs society as a vast machine that produces human capital, and then maximises the return on the capital thus produced by inducing a neurotic busyness, is a self instrumentalisation of the worst sort. The elites, rather than living lives to their own purposes, are now as much or even more commodified. Meritocratic wealth may give you power. But it does not give you the freedom to live your life to your own purposes.
This is combined with a second trend, partly induced by exogenous technological change. The nature of work in an advanced capitalist society like the US, now inordinately rewards people at the top of the meritocratic hierarchy, but leaves everyone else worse off. So the inequality of compensation within any profession or firm has increased. In a striking formulation, Markovits warns of the danger of the lumpenproletarianisation of the middle class in the United States. Markovits charts this transformation across a range of professions and companies, from McDonalds to Silicon Valley. In short, meritocracy is also now aligned with what Robert Frank once called “the winner takes all economy”, where the costs of coming even second are inordinately high.
The result is an alarming dystopia: elites plagued by the insecurity and neurosis of maintaining meritocratic privilege and large swathes of the middle class and poor shut out from meritocratic structures of opportunity. Politics gets polarised since the elites think they are entitled to their privilege (and a sense of entitlement based on ability is deeper than one based on inheritance), and the rest are resentful of a closed system they have no ideological means of combatting. The middle and lower classes are more marginalised. But the privileged are, paradoxically, even more instrumentalised, where the purpose of their existence is to serve the meritocratic machine itself, not discover their authentic purposes in life. Inequality makes competition more cutthroat.
Markovits has several suggestions to overcome this dystopia: equalising education so that the advantages of meritocratic privilege are not concentrated is one obvious answer. But a radical reform of wage structures, where the cost of coming even second is not so high, is another more controversial issue. He wants to reform the tax system that favours the displacement of middle-class jobs. But while the recommendations will generate a lot of debate, there is no doubt that The Meritocracy Trap is an impressive mirror to the burdens of meritocracy. It is one of the most important books of our time.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is contributing editor, The Indian Express